Just off one of the main routes between France and Spain; lies a hidden valley that climbs to a reservoir surrounded by majestic Pyrenean peaks. A classic mountain road with hairpin bends and a mile long tunnel make this all the more enjoyable!
I love studying maps when I am in a new area; to see how the land lies, unusual features and how sometimes ancient routes connect places. Then transferring the two dimensional map into real life; you see how seemingly impossible routes are possible with the right gear and attitude. So one evening after dinner; I found myself studying a map of the mountains and valleys that surround the highest Pyrenean peak of Aneto. At first I noticed the large blue expanse of the reservoir; then the road that hair-pinned and zig-zagged up a nearby valley; then the dotted line that represented a tunnel that connected the two! Double checking with Google that this road was open to the public; I packed my cycle gear and readied my bike for an early start the next day!
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From river deep to mountain high!
Coming from the south on the N230 highway; I turned off the main road towards the little village of Senet. Here the Aragon/ Catalonia border follows the river up the Barrabes valley; so it was interesting to see the signs change from one side of the river to the other. There is a really small but interesting museum at the start of the village which is well worth a visit. Belonging to the Aigüestortes national park service; it explains the local history, conservation and wildlife.
Not wanting to upset the locals; I drove back out of town and parked on a wide junction by the river bridge. Whilst taking the bike out of the car and thinking about the right amount of clothes and food to take; I was filled with the usual mix of anticipation and excitement! Finally locking the car and taking that first pedal stroke; I soon relaxed with the sense of freedom that I have only found on a bicycle!
Passing under the N230 highway, I immediately left the valley floor behind with the first ramp up to the village of Aneto. Passing a farm with rusting tractors and sheep bleating from old barns; I thought this area has never been invaded by the hoards of tourists that besiege other valleys along the Pyrenees. As it was the hour of siesta; there were few signs of human habitation. So it was only the cows that nodded; as I rode out and up, always up, from the town.
As I climbed up and away from the village of Aneto; the condition of the road started to deteriorate. Large potholes and loose rocks that fallen from above meant I had to choose my line carefully on the road; yet the 29 inch wheels of my mountain bike rolled over the rough surface with ease. Reaching the ridgeline that you can see from the valley floor; the road turned right up a steep ravine. With big cliffs dropping to my left and rising to my right; I ran the gauntlet of rockfall for a good kilometre before the valley started to open and relax once more. It had been dry and sunny for weeks so I knew the risks were low; I would be careful in spring due to the melt water and after a heavy thunderstorm in the area.
From here the valley widened enough to accommodate pastures full of grazing sheep. The grass was lush and green and a lone beech tree swayed in the warm autumn breeze. An old sheepdog on a long chain could barely be bothered to bark and the shepherd snoozed in his old rusting 4×4. The sun came out from between long clouds and I felt at complete peace in this tranquil hidden valley.
After crossing the pastures the road then began a series of hairpin bends to reach a ridgeline. The gradient was steady and gentle with the broken asphalt not a problem for my mountain bike tyres. When the road reached the ridgeline; it turned sharply to follow this ridgeline higher towards the imposing mountains above me.
Passing at a abandoned mining hut; I stopped at a mountain spring to refill my two water bottles. I added purifying tablets; yet the water looked and tasted so clean. I had to little worry about up here; high above any forms of manmade pollution.
From here, I had to stop a couple of times; to catch my breath as the gradients increased and the air seemed to thin and cool. Passing through a space age looking concrete tunnel which protected the road from rockfall; I thought of Narnia and wondered what lay ahead! Climbing further up the now gravel road; the clouds cleared once more and the valley opened up before me. I stopped once more and took in the view. Putting on a long sleeved jersey and eating a few cereal bars; I just enjoyed the huge panorama of valley and sky. For behind me the road now came to a huge cliff face; with the only way up being a tunnel entrance!
So going from a sun kissed view of the valley below me rolling away to the south; I turned and entered the tunnel. By reading other reviews I was prepared for this tunnel. I had brought cumbersome headtorches and bike-lights through fear of other road users not being able to see me. Yet in late September I didn’t meet any traffic in this tunnel on the ascent and descent. Some other cyclists say the length of the tunnel and dim lights became overbearing and tiring on the mind. Yet I found the wall lights were just bright enough to light the way. I prepared my mind beforehand, by taking in and memorising the huge vista in the picture. Then when I entered the tunnel; I used a gentle but constant pedal cadence and focused on the vanishing point.
In fairness, at one point; I started to feel disorientated without a far horizon. Maybe this is what they mean by ‘tunnel vision’? However, the smooth tunnel floor and gentle gradient meant I soon saw the light at the end of the tunnel and the awe inspiring views on the other side!
Embalse de Llauset
Bursting out of the tunnel entrance I was rewarded with this amazing view of the reservoir, dam and the peak of Vallibierna (3056metres). In summer with the long days and good weather; it is possible to ride and porter the bike over the mountains in the distant, towards the valley of Benasque.
It was now cold out of the sun and recent early snowfall still lingered on the ground. I propped my bike against a fence and did a quick walk out on to the dam itself. I quickly took a few photos so that I can show them here but tried to remember everything in my minds eye. This way, I find the memories last longer which seems to be true as write this account three months after that amazing day!
I was aware I could not stay too long because I would not warm up on the descent; so I took a few more memory pictures and grabbed my bike for the descent.
The descent was back the same way so navigation was never an issue. It was just the cold of the shade, the snow, the now gathering wind and the fact I could not keep warm by pedalling on the descent. So I now wore the down jacket I had tied around my waist, I wore a buff under my helmet and pulled up my long socks as far as they would reach!
Descending through the tunnel was now great fun; like a covered rollercoaster I screamed and shouted at my echo as I now easily descended! Leaving the tunnel once more; I paused to take in the same views as before. Then after that, I would stop every kilometre or so; to let my brakes cool and my eyes to wander over this lush green landscape. Even thinking about it now in the depths of a damp English winter; I felt so calm and relaxed in that high hidden Pyrenean valley.
After taking one last look before running the return gauntlet of the rockfall risk zone; I descended to Barrabes Valley below. Whilst, I was changing my clothes and putting my bike back in the car within earshot of the main road. I metaphorically realised it is all too easy to stay on a main road in life; just because it seems easy and everyone else is doing the same. Yet now again, take care to look off to the sides; for those hidden routes to relax.
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